Everybody knows that Jim Nill and the Dallas Stars have already won the 2014 offseason. But that doesn't mean that the rest of the Western Conference spent the summer sitting on their hands. Except Winnipeg, who did exactly that. Over the past month and a half we've looked at the true enemies of the Dallas Stars... the members of Conference III. However, in a spirit of paranoia, one must admit that the Stars' enemies are not just confined to the Central Division. No, they're everywhere. And so we shift our gaze westwards, to the revamped, downgraded, but now more appropriately named former home of the Stars. The Pacific Division. We began with Rebuild 3.0 over in Edmonton, then moved on to Alberta's other heroes, the Calgary Flames, and last week rounded out the Canadian contingent with a look at the Vancouver Canucks. Time now to move across borders, to where the Arizona Coyotes hover on the brink of relevance...
Before you get fully embroiled in this, my article, I'll give you another option. You know, for the tl;dr crowd. Our sister site Five for Howling has posted a review of the Coyotes offseason... in GIF format. Check it out, it might save you some time. Alternately, well, I guess you could continue reading the actual article that you clicked on the link for. There's always that option. Ahem.
One of the biggest stories this summer was the name change of the Phoenix Coyotes to the... no, not the Seattle Freeze... but to the Arizona Coyotes. Talk about an exciting rebrand. They also renamed their arena from the Jobing.com Arena to the Gila River Arena. Personally, I feel that anytime the phrase '.com' is removed from an arena or stadium name, the universe wins. Plus, the Gila River is cool. I mean, it has its own monster and everything. Not that I got too excited about the renaming of an arena in Glendale. It's not like it changes anything.
And funny enough, the Coyotes' offseason moves in regards to roster construction followed a similar pattern to these other moves: somewhat exciting, with the right spin on it, but ultimately meaningless. Let's talk about why, shall we?
The biggest story this summer, insofar as it actually relates to the sport of hockey as played in the state of Arizona, is that Mike Ribeiro was bought out, a big surprise that surprised nobody. Will the Coyotes miss him? Well, besides the emphatic 'no!' being shouted by Arizona fans everywhere, we can also point to a ridiculous drop off in production on his part as the season wore on. Along with other off-ice issues that have been discussed ad nauseam. And frankly, I'm tired of discussing them. And so Ribeiro was bought out and had to go ask Nashville nicely if they would employ him.
The other significant subtraction was Radim Vrbata. Vrbata finished the season as the third leading goal scorer on the team, behind only Antoine Vermette and Shane Doan, with 20 goals and 51 points. Keep in mind this is the Coyotes we're talking about. 20 goals makes you a superstar. I mean, Keith Yandle was their leading point getter with 53. And I'd like to point out that he's a defenseman. Of course, the Coyotes had seven players who scored more points than Alex Goligoski, so there's that. Heaps of secondary scoring, without any primary scoring. Sounds about right for the 'Yotes.
So Ribeiro and Vrbata out, but who's in?
Well, the one we should care about, no offense to B. J. Crombeen or Joe Vitale who are good people I'm sure, is Sam Gagner. Gagner only had 37 points though playing for the Oilers last season, so can he really replace the offense lost with the departure of Ribeiro and Vrbata? Presumably the thought from the higher-ups in Arizona is that Gagner is due a resurgence. He was playing for the Oilers after all, and nothing is anybody's fault when they're playing in Edmonton. Plus the Coyotes picked him and Crombeen up from Tampa Bay for only a 6th-round pick. We'll call that trade a win. A good trade, but it still doesn't completely address the recently created holes in the Arizona offense.
Coyotes fans better hope Max Domi lives up to his promise...
And on defense? Well, they're pretty well set on defense. Having Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson anchoring your blueline doesn't hurt. And a couple of former first-round draft picks in Brandon Gormley and Connor Murphy had their cups of coffee at the NHL level last season and can be expected to step up and have an impact this season.
Backing it all up will again be goaltender Mike Smith. And while he probably won't reach the heights of 2011-12 again, where he posted a .930 save percentage whilst playing in 67 games, he does provide a pretty sturdy option behind an already good defense. And this season he's to be backed up by newly acquired Devan Dubnyk who hopefully, for the Coyotes sake, can regain his form of any year but last year.
All in all, for a team in the top-heavy Pacific Division, the Arizona Coyotes didn't seem to do a lot this last season to work on redressing that balance. Dave Tippett still coaches them, so of course they'll hover around a playoff spot. But on which side of the bubble will they wind up?
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Jaime Eisner, managing editor over at Five for Howling, was kind enough to put up with me and answer a few questions on the upcoming
struggles season of the Arizona Coyotes.
1) The Coyotes began quite strongly last year, going 16-8-4 over the first couple months of the season. They then went 21-22-11 the rest of the way. What happened? Is it coincidence the stumble coincided with Shane Doan's illness?
While it is not a coincidence that the Coyotes began to falter in the absence of their captain, the team's regression was inevitable. From an advanced stats standpoint, their high PDO was unsustainable, especially for a team that is very average in the talent department. From a style standpoint, their early season offensive showcase and defensive dumpster fire is not the way Dave Tippett coached teams win hockey games. Star free agent signing Mike Ribeiro not living up to expectations did not help either. Despite all that and playing .500 hockey for most of the final two-thirds of the season, the Yotes still found themselves in playoff contention before losing seven of their final eight games.
2) Arizona finished 20th in scoring last season, but were 4th in the league in power play conversion rate. First off, tell us all your secrets so we can fix the Stars' anemic power play. Second, Ribeiro and Vrbata out, Gagner in. How do you see Arizona's offense performing this season?
See Brown, Newell. The Coyotes scooped up the coach in the wake of Alain Vigneault's firing from Vancouver before last season. His new system worked wonders, improving the team's power play from 25th to 4th in year one. It does not hurt that Arizona has two of the best power play defensemen anyone could ask for in Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle.
While many Coyotes fans were happy to see Mike Ribeiro go, the offensive problems in Arizona still remain. Losing goal-scorer Radim Vrbata will not help matters. However, Sam Gagner gets an opportunity to wash the Edmonton away from his game and return to near 50-point form. Gagner and Ribeiro probably cancel each other out, but the Coyotes will have to rely on rookie Max Domi and a full season of Martin Erat to provide enough new offense to overcome the loss of Vrbata.
3) Devan Dubnyk was kinda sorta awful last season in Edmonton. Thinking he can return to his prior form in the backup role in Arizona? Or are you hoping Mike Smith is able to start 82 games this season?
If allowed, Dave Tippett would play Mike Smith all 82 games, regardless of who the back-up is.
Devan Dubnyk was kinda sorta awful last season, but there is hope he can regain his form from his previous three seasons, where he posted save percentages of .916, .914 and .920 respectively. Goaltending coach Sean Burke is affectionately called the "Goalie Whisperer" for his ability to "fix" and have success with bigger goaltenders such as Ilya Bryzgalov and Mike Smith. Dubnyk fits that mold.
4) It would seem Max Domi is a lock to make the jump to the NHL this season. Thoughts on him, and any other prospects I've never heard of that are looking to make a splash?
It certainly would be a major surprise if Max Domi is not on the opening night roster. The team needs offense and Domi's offensive upside surpasses that of any current Coyotes prospect. Domi likely plays a top-6 role from day one as a LW.
Four other players have a chance to make the main club right away. Forwards Henrik Samuelsson, Tyler Gaudet, Lucas Lessio and Tobias Rieder. Lessio has already had a cup of coffee in the NHL, making the main club out of camp last season, and is the most likely of this group to play on opening night. Gaudet is a defensively gifted center who projects as a fourth liner and nothing more. He has a decent chance to start on the fourth line, but a year in the AHL would not be a bad thing. Samuelsson and Rieder will likely start the year in the AHL, but could see time in the NHL before season's end. Rieder is a goal-scorer coming off a 28-goal AHL campaign, while Samuelsson turns pro after winning the Memorial Cup last season with the Edmonton Oil Kings.
5) And lastly, was this summer a step forward or back? Or more of a sideways shuffle? And can the Coyotes make up those final two points and actually claim a wildcard spot for the Pacific Division?
To many it felt like a step back, but in my opinion it was more of a sideways shuffle. Gagner provides a similar skill set as Ribeiro. The infusion of young guys like Max Domi will breathe life into a veteran forward corps. The defensive corps adds top prospects Brandon Gormley and Connor Murphy to an already quality blueline. The Coyotes will remain right on the cusp of a playoff spot, hanging around the 8-10 spot in the West.